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Metropolis muddle

Rather than worry about an increasing population, cities like Mumbai must concern themselves with transport and environmental matters, writes Darryl D’Monte.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2013 22:15 IST
Darryl D’Monte

While public attention has been focused on the shortfalls in city governance at the local level, the implications of mega cities — those with more than 10 million souls — have largely gone unnoticed. Last week, the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research focused on five such larger entities at an international workshop in Mumbai. Delhi was left out because it is a city-state, a peculiar animal in its own right.

In Mumbai, as presumably in the four other cities of Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, people tend to conflate the populations of the city proper with the much larger metropolitan region. Thus, Greater Mumbai comprises some 480 sq km and has 12.4 million inhabitants. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), on the other hand, spans 4,355 sq km and has 22 million. The outlying townships of Thane and Kalyan themselves are more than a million each. Even so-called urban experts parrot the scare that Greater Mumbai is bursting at the seams by imagining that it has over 20 million people. In fact, the population of the city proper is decelerating, considering that it grew by only 5 lakh between 2001 and 2011.

Indeed, India’s urbanisation itself is not rapid by Latin American and African standards. And, in comparison with our South and South-East Asian neighbours, we do not have ‘primate cities’ which account for the bulk of a country’s population and wealth. However, India’s urban population in absolute terms rather than the growth rate — somewhat like the US economy — is huge: an estimated 600 million in 2030 and 900 million in 2050. Cities, as Adi Godrej of the Confederation of Indian Industry, which co-hosted the workshop, pointed out, account for two-thirds of the nation’s GDP and 90% of the government’s revenue. If one takes a corporate view of urban development, some $800 billion of infrastructure is required to be put in place in two decades, 45% of this on roads.

The MMR reflects many dilemmas which large city-regions suffer from. There are no fewer than 17 agencies concerned with the region’s governance, including the central government, state government and municipalities. Narendra Nayar of the corporate think-tank Bombay First put it well: “These are all able members of an orchestra, but there is no conductor.” A classic case in point is the ongoing controversy over the extension of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link northwards to the suburbs. The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) is in the clutches of the junior coalition partner, the NCP. It has recently got the green signal from the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) for a sea link. The 10.1 km-long link will cost Rs. 400 crore a km or Rs. 4,000 crore.

Not to be outdone, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has, this month, invited proposals from consultants instead to conduct a feasibility study and obtain permissions from the Centre for a 36.5 km-long coastal road, worth R8,000 crore. It will straddle the entire west coast of the Greater Mumbai peninsula, from the central business district in the south to the extreme north. The cost of a coastal road is Rs. 80 crore a km; this higher estimate presumably requires the executing agency to ‘buy’ the Bandra-Worli Sea Link for its cost of R1,600 crore and will include a tunnel through Malabar Hill.

The municipal commissioner has compounded the confusion by leaving the choice of the executing agency open at this stage: it could be the MSRDC or, more likely, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), if not the BMC itself. This body is in the Congress camp and the former municipal commissioner also championed it, encouraged by chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who is anxious to complete a major transport project in Mumbai during his tenure. The once cash-rich MMRDA, which develops and sells land, notably in the new business district of Bandra-Kurla, has reserves of $12 billion, though it needs R22,000 crore to complete ongoing and other infrastructure projects in and around Mumbai. The MMR’s GDP, measured by purchasing power parity, is today $250 billion, the size of Hungary’s GDP, which Dr Partha Mukhopadhyay of the CPR likened to “a large, heavy, economic beast”.

If it was not impinging on the lives of millions in this most populous of all five metropolitan regions, the two different authorities working at cross-purposes would appear comic. While the coastal road is cheaper, it will involve reclamation to ensure the alignment of the road and it may destroy mangroves on the west coast, not to mention two popular promenades in Bandra, which local citizens have built with an MP’s funds. Even if the sea link is built, the MSRDC, which built the Bandra-Worli section, intends to construct highways over mangroves on stilts, which will snuff out their life. They are protected with the highest priority under the Coastal Regulation Zone.

Neither the MMR nor any other mega city authority appears to be aware that in industrial nations, planners are demolishing flyovers, sea links and the like. As these planners know, private motorist projects serve a minority — only 8% of Mumbai’s commuters — and actually increase the traffic, and the congestion that ensues. Public transport is the only option left in a world facing coronary thrombosis with climate change.

Darryl D’Monte is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI). The views expressed by the author are personal.